political revue


Year XXVI, 1984, Number 3 - Page 205



Since the beginning of the 70’s a body of thinking has grown up centred mainly around the study of political phenomena from a territorial standpoint. The growing interest for this kind of research is related to the increasing internationalisation of economies, information and life styles. This process has cut down the over-riding importance that traditional centres of national life – political, economic and cultural – had until a few decades ago, and has thus made it possible to recuperate territorial identities that had been obliterated. It encourages the peripheries to advance claims of all kinds vis-à-vis the central regions and, in general, makes the complicated territorial differentiation of that political, economic and cultural reality, traditionally presented as “the” national reality, stand out more clearly.
In fact, this line of thinking would seem to be taking up the space which until a few years ago sociologists, political scientists, economists and historians reserved for research on social stratification (heavily influenced by a Marxist culture linked to the national framework and, traditionally, uninterested in territorial problems).
The approach is characteristic of an interesting, recently published book edited by the late Stein Rokkan, a pioneer in the field, and by Derek W. Urwin (The Politics of Territorial Identity. Studies in European Regionalism, SAGE Publications, London-Beverly Hills-New Delhi, 1982, pp. 438). Two long essays by Urwin deserve special mention. In them, the author studies the relationships between politics and territorial structure in Britain and Germany. Both essays, though failing to provide any overview and never going beyond a sequence of unconnected suggestions, provide interesting cues for further reflection.
Urwin’s collection of data throws light on the territorial aspects of the dialectic between political parties in both countries’ history. In Britain, a country where the long history of union has created a particularly homogeneous society from a territorial point of view, the opposition between Whigs and Tories – and later between Liberals and Conservatives – in the 19th century, was not just a class opposition between aristocracy and great capital, on the one hand, and the gentry and middle class, on the other (the latter supported by the working class prior to the development of the Labour Party). It was also an opposition between centre and periphery. The core of the Conservative Party’s electoral base was in the central regions of England and the Conservatives represented these regions’ interests, whereas the Liberals were strong mainly in Scotland, Wales and the outlying regions of England and acted as spokesmen for these areas’ demands.
It is therefore possible using Urwin’s data to argue that it was only at the beginning of the 1940’s, when Labour ousted the Liberal Party as the second pole of British political life, that class division became the exclusive and decisive factor determining citizens’ political allegiance. It was only then that Home Rule ceased to be one of the central issues in the political debate and only then that the party system became truly national (a development facilitated by the Republic of Ireland’s independence).
Urwin comes up with similar results when he analyses German history from a territorial standpoint. Here too, and much more conspicuously than in Britain, at least until Hitler’s rise to power, the party system (with the exception of the Socialdemocratic Party) was characterized by a high degree of territorial separation, although it must be admitted that the development of a national party system was encouraged by the adoption of proportional representation, in the years of the Weimar Republic, which allowed all political parties to participate in elections with some chance of success even in regions where they were clearly in a minority. Germany, however, had to look to Hitler for her unity to be definitively affirmed.
Urwin’s analysis is interesting and useful since it shows how the development of national peoples in the course of the 19th and the first decades of the 20th century was much more laborious than is normally believed and how the centre-periphery tension has been a significant factor in the political and social dialectic of Western European States since the beginning of the industrial revolution, even though this tension has been less conspicuous than the class struggle, with which it is inextricably interwoven. Indeed, in this light the sociological foundations of nations are shown to be less firm and much more recent than approaches restricted to the history of ideas or inspired by a Marxist outlook might lead us to believe.
Urwin’s essays show how a territorial point of view of politics reveals interesting differences in the history of both countries in recent decades. Britain has seen the re-emergence of centre-periphery tensions (in forms that are no longer refracted through national parties), whereas the Federal Republic is the only great European country where tensions are almost entirely absent. This was partly due to the separation from Prussia but more particularly to the fact that the homogeneity achieved in the conditions of living throughout the country went hand in hand with a high degree of territorial and institutional decentralization. This made it possible for traditional local characteristics to express themselves in a local or regional framework, instead of being unleashed on the national framework, thus endangering its unity. The apparently paradoxical conclusion can be drawn that, in a situation where national powers are in crisis, the forces questioning the nation’s unity are all the greater the more centralised the state’s structure is.
Germany also presents an ethnic pattern which is seemingly very homogeneous. There are those who would like to put the absence of any separatist movement in the Federal Republic down to this characteristic. But this raises the question of ethnicity, a problem that Jaroslav Krejci and Vitezslav Velimsky seek to answer in their book Ethnic and Political Nations in Europe, Croom Helm, London, 1981, pp. 279. This book once again witnesses the hollowness of any attempt to define objectively what by its very nature is above all ideological.
Territory, political situation (whether united in one state or not and what kind of state), history, culture, language and consciousness, the latter construed as a loosely defined feeling of ethnic or political membership, are the criteria that the authors adopt for their classification of ethnic types. The results of such a classification are quite arbitrary, although it must be stated that the analysis they provide is far from uninteresting. Although the authors speak of 73 ethnies in Europe, the reader gets the feeling that half or twice as many would have been an equally reliable guide. The plain truth is that no ethnic group has well defined confines under any of the aforesaid criteria, and that they could all easily be considered parts of larger ethnic groups and could with equal ease be subdivided into many smaller ones. Even the idea of awareness of membership of a specific group is a very fragile analytical tool. We need only think of the vast number of different communities each of us feels he belongs to. The fact is that the feeling of territorial identification, or group membership, changes according to the political and institutional context in which it is activated. Thus, according to context, membership of one’s town, or one’s region or nation may be considered paramount. And neither of these entities is ever perceived with well-defined boundaries, save the artificial ones that politics carves out.
What we may safely conclude is that all symbols of ethnic identification are to be found at their highest degree of intensity in the central core of the territory taken as coinciding with a particular ethnic group, and that this gradually decreases as we move from the centre to the periphery. And this is the reason why, within a national framework, border regions suffer a structural crisis as regards their identity. In this respect, special mention must be made of Solange Gras’s essay in the volume edited by Rokkan and Urwin mentioned above. This essay describes the position of Alsace, a region which, from the French Revolution onwards, has always been forced to identify either with France or with Germany, even though deep down it feels it belongs to neither. Hence the permanent feeling of cultural frustration, from which it has been slowly emerging over the last few decades thanks to the deepening of the process of European integration.
It is precisely the process of European integration that has turned some of the previously economically neglected, culturally alienated and politically oppressed peripheral areas of nation states (particularly those bordering on other Community states) into essential “hinge” regions in intra-Community relationships. Thus, some interesting examples of transfrontier regions have taken shape in particularly sensitive areas. These examples are discussed in the various essays of a book called Frontier Regions in Western Europe (London, Frank Cass, 1983, pp. 135) edited by Malcom Anderson.
The success of the Common Market has reduced the importance of the old national power centres and has shifted the political, economic and cultural focus of European life towards the historical Lotharingia, viz. towards the Community’s geographical centre. This has provoked the need for many areas of different dimensions (the Rhine area, the Alpine arc, the Bale area, the Aachen area etc.) to organise cross frontier relationships with new patterns. This in its turn has created the awareness that planning requirements are such that regions need to be created that go beyond national boundaries. Such regions already have their own cultural identity which cannot be identified with any of the “nations” they belong to, a cultural identity that they can only now begin to appreciate fully, thanks to the increasing ‘permeability’ of frontiers. Thus, these regions are losing their old image as peripheries and taking on a new identity as centres of political, economic and cultural life.
This process cannot, however, be completed until Europe is given an institutional framework which is federal in form. For the time being, transfrontier regions are witnessing the existence of a problem rather than a solution to the problem. The need for transfrontier planning is indeed thwarted at present by the natural tendency of national governments to deal with such problems as if they were foreign policy problems and the good will of the local administrators on each side of the borders cannot make up for the absence of any mechanism channelling political will throughout the territory nor can it make up for the existence of different legal, administrative and fiscal systems.
The particularly sensitive nature now being acquired by hinge areas between various states in Western Europe raises the interesting problem of whether a classic federal structure is suitable and adequate enough for the purpose of safeguarding these areas’ functions. The complicated train of events that led the Jura region to break away from the Berne canton and set itself up as an autonomous canton in Switzerland shows that the centre-periphery strain can also emerge within a federal framework (see the interesting essay on this subject by David B. Campbell in Rokkan’s and Urwin’s volume). The most adequate way of tackling the problem is in reality if the federal system is structured into different tiers of government in such a way that one particular geographical area will always be peripheral vis-à-vis one tier but central vis-à-vis another. This evidently implies that the different tiers of government should not be incorporated one within the other but rather should intersect each other.
A number of useful ideas in a shorter perspective, again seen from a territorial standpoint, are to be found in a beautiful essay by the American political scientist Arend Lijphart, called Democracies. Patterns of Majoritarian and Consensus Government in Twenty-One Countries, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1984, pp. XV-229. Lijphart singles out an analytical criterion which seems to me to be particularly appropriate when classifying democracies: the ‘polarity’ between the Westminster model and the consensus model of democracy. The Westminster model, whose purest forms are the constitutional structure of Britain and, even more, New Zealand, includes among its basic characteristics the tendency towards a two-party system, the ensuing concentration of executive power into the hands of a single party for a whole term, cabinet dominance over parliament, the tendency towards unicameralism) a one-dimensional party-system (i.e. the existence of a single line of opposition between the parties coinciding with right-left division determined by economic and social issues), the adoption of the ‘first-past-the-post’ system for the election of Members of Parliament. The consensus model has the reverse characteristics: coalition governments, dominance of legislature over executive power, balanced bicameralism and minority representation, multipartism and a multidimensional party system (defined according to religious, ethnic and other criteria and not just social and economic ones), proportional representation.
Lijphart recalls that both models very rarely surface in political reality in forms approaching their pure state. However, one major phenomenon clearly emerges from his analysis: this is the correlation existing between the Westminster model and the degree of homogeneity in society.
And in any case there is a territorial aspect to society’s stronger or weaker homogeneity in today’s advanced democracies (where the class struggle no longer threatens the basic consensus). Hence the characteristics of the Westminster model will prevail in a country where there is a wider and stronger consensus on the basic rules of living together and the legitimacy of the political community. It is precisely this consensus (i.e. the guarantee that party dialectic will never involve the deepest roots of the citizens) political and cultural identification and that consequently the government’s decisions, whatever they may be and however unpleasant, will never be totally unacceptable for a part of society, that forms the sociological basis of the traditional capacity to decide of the British government.
On the other hand, in less than homogeneous societies, consensus must be created by institutions. This evidently means that the consensus model – which can only bring about a lower decision-making capacity – is not the result of the ignorance of those who introduced it, but merely that it is a system of government which, in its various forms, is the only one capable of preventing the strains existing in dishomogeneous societies from exploding in the absence of any channels through which they can find political expression.
Many of the silly objections made both inside and outside the European Parliament during the debate preceding the vote in favour of the Draft Treaty are swept away by Lijphart’s analysis. At the time, many people failed to see the differences existing between the Community and particular member states, or rather some of them, and, with a certain degree of mechanical scholasticism, attributed the problems of these member states to the Community. They became obsessed with the idea of sheltering the future European government from the whims of Parliament and from the instability of majorities. As a result, they looked suspiciously on any institutional formula that made it possible for the Parliament to exercise strong control over the executive. Traces of this attitude have survived in the text approved by the Parliament. One of the more questionable provisions to be found in the Draft Treaty (which upholds a provision in the Treaty of Rome) lays down that a vote of no-confidence vis-à-vis the Commission can be passed by the Parliament only when a two-thirds majority is obtained.
The reality is that the Union as foreseen by the Draft Treaty clearly belongs to the consensus model of democracy. This means that the primary task of the Union’s institutions, if they are to be consolidated and if progress towards political unity is to be made, is the ability to mobilize and polarise the whole of the available consensus around these institutions in a society, such as the European one, whose territorial make-up is so profoundly diverse. This makes the representativeness of institutions (in a system which provides for a government with real powers, of course) more important than their efficiency or, to be more precise, makes efficiency depend on representativeness.
All this means a government in which the great majority of Europeans, belonging to all member states and to many different political tendencies, are able to recognize themselves. Any such government should be strictly controlled by a Parliament elected on a proportional basis, the very same Parliament which is to all effects and purposes – and will continue to be – the repository of all legitimacy attributed by universal suffrage, and as such is and will be the driving force of the process of unification.
Francesco Rossolillo



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